Have a drink with: Single Ladies (Halloween Edition)
Burning hair, apples, chicken guts, lead poisoning.
Ask her about: Do you know the Heimlich maneuver?
For most of American history, Halloween was not a holiday for children. Quite the opposite: to the extent Halloween was celebrated at all, by the 19th century it was known as an occasion for creepy seances or playful mischief-making by the adolescent set, where “playful” is mostly a euphemism for “requiring the assistance of the fire department.” (So intense was the prankster habit that one local fire chief sighed that, while he had no problem with teens celebrating the holiday with some reasonable pranking, “when droves of youngsters march through the streets pelting citizens and houses with vegetables he will make somebody answer for it.”)
People at the turn of the century would have had no concept of Halloween as the sort of holiday with small children playing charming dress-up, adults playing unnecessarily sexualized dress-up (seriously: WHY?), and everybody just doing it all for the Snickers bars.
They were too busy looking for their future spouse in the basement mirror.
Have a drink with: Sarah Winchester
40BR, 30BA; move-in ready!
Ask her about: Extreme Home Makeover, Spectral Edition
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the star of the recent suspense film Winchester is Helen Mirren. She is, after all, a certified badass; a superb actress; and well kitted out for the job in a dour stare and a dramatic swath of black Victorian lace.
In fact, though, the star of the film is a house, purportedly as haunted in reality as it is on film. The Winchester Mystery House, as it’s popularly known, is a 160-room Queen Anne-style mansion in modern-day Silicon Valley, created by the real-life version of Mirren’s character Sarah Winchester. And as a 1940s tourism brochure points out, “The World’s Largest, Oddest Dwelling” is not your typical real estate listing.
So why spend more than three decades building an ooky, nonsensical Queen Anne monstrosity, albeit one with very nice amenities? If you believe the legend, it’s because Sarah Winchester was trying to manage a tenant roster of very unhappy ghosts.
Have a drink with: Marie Tussaud
Utility, amusement, severed heads.
Ask her about: working motherhood
Looking forward to Halloween, I’m at Atlas Obscura today writing about Madame Marie Tussaud, the 19th century entertainer and artist who got her start making death masks of decapitated French revolutionaries. Marie left France at forty years old, with her toddler and a bag of wax heads in tow, ready to bet on a new life (one that did not include her husband, who she’d as soon have smacked with a two-by-four). She knew that the public loved two things – royal tabloid news and bloody Victorian crime – and she gladly obliged with newer and better attractions every year, parading a collection of wax notables around England and Scotland for twenty years before settling in a sprawling London gallery. She died in 1850 with credit for Britain’s most popular tourist attraction, an institution that in intervening years has given rise to a collection of two dozen global wax museums.
Click over to Atlas Obscura to read the whole story. Meanwhile…
Have a drink with: Mary Todd Lincoln
Bad taste in psychics; good taste in jewelry
Ask her about: Levitating pianos
George Saunders’ novel Lincoln in the Bardo looks at the metaphysics of the Lincoln family, with what on first glance might seem to be wild creative license. Dramatizing the doubt and grief that colored the President’s life, Saunders gathers a swirl of chatty ghosts to comment on Lincoln’s brief foray into the graveyard after the death of his son Willie in 1862.
Linking the Lincolns and the spirit world isn’t a stretch – though it wasn’t the President so much as his wife who was eager to commune with spirits. Mary Todd Lincoln, driven by family tragedy, was interested in spiritualism through much of her life.
Have a drink with: Spirit Photographers
Ray? When someone asks you if you’re a god, you say yes.
Ask them about: Selfies with your dead relatives
In 1848, two sisters from Hydesville, New York spread word that they heard mysterious rapping noises on the walls and furniture of their home, and could speak with spirits through tapped code. An enthralled public declared the girls spirit mediums, and over the years household seances, lectures, even Spiritualist “churches” formed a movement – one that survived and grew even after one of the Fox sisters admitted that their spiritual “conversations” were total fluff, the noises no more than dropped apples and cracking their toes under the table.
Just in time for Halloween I’ve been reading David Jaher’s new book The Witch of Lime Street, a detailed romp through the spiritualist revival of the 1920’s, starring Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini and a real-life parade of mediums, journalists and hucksters. Jaher talks about the movement’s surge in the post-WWI years, due in no small part to the inescapable impact of war and influenza on the populations of the Western world. With so many suddenly dead from violence or virus, the grieving were understandably receptive to the idea that they might contact their friends and family in the hereafter. Would the spirits speak to you? Could they?
That’s all well and good, but Jaher ignores a more pressing question: would they hold still for a selfie?